The case of Joan (prononunced “Jo-Anne”) Little helped bring awareness to sexual abuse of women in prison. In 1975, Ms.Little became the first woman acquitted of murder using a self-defense plea after she killed an abusive white prison guard.
At age 20, Joan was ordered to serve seven to ten years at the Women’s Prison in Raleigh. Joan chose to serve her time at the Beaufort County Jail to raise bond and appeal her conviction. At just 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds,Joan was considerably smaller than the male prisons guards.
The county jail was often lax in its security and it was known that guards often promised freedom to the inmates in change for sexual flavors.
According to Joan’s account in the wee morning hours of August 27, 1974, Alligood, a married prison guard, was discovered half-nude in Little’s cell. The guard was stabbed 11 times by an ice pick and naked from the waist down. Alligood was stabbed in the temple and chest, and semen was found on his left leg as his body clutched the pick. His keys were missing, which Little used to escape. The pick was a favored tool of guards in the prison for doing miscellaneous clean up jobs, so it is assumed Little walked freely in the facility at some point before and after the murder.
With the help of local attorney Jerry Paul, Little negotiated her surrender after being declared a fugitive. Instead of returning to the county facility perhaps out of fear, Little was transferred to the Raleigh Women’s Prison.
The district attorney for Beaufort County sought to indict Little on first-degree murder, which the grand jury complied. In North Carolina at the time, first-degree murder charges also carried the high threat of the death penalty.
With bail set at $115,000 to $100,000 for the murder charge and $15,000 on her prior grand larceny charges, which landed her in jail, Little was forced to remain in prison for six more months.
The murder trial began on July 14, 1975, ending on this day after weeks of testimonies and a media circus that attempted to paint Alligood as a devoted family man who would never harm a soul. Dick Gregory, Julian Bond, and others joined protesters in and outside the court during the trial. The defense, with the good fortune of shoddy police work and lack of solid evidence, would win their case. After a trial that lasted a month and one week, the case was deliberated and decided in just 78 minutes that morning.
Little said to the news that she “felt good” about the verdict and that the “prosecution was more interested in sending #Black women to the gas chamber than the truth.” She also added the trial was “fair” as well.